It is morning, the sky is blue, the clouds are fluffy and I feel oddly anxious in this strange unstructured life. I seem always to have something to do and I wonder how that could be. Are these things that I simply ignored when I was working, things I chose to be in denial about or that I just put off until now? Maybe they are the things I filled my nights and weekends with so that I felt that I never had a day off.
How strange to be able to say, “I can do that tomorrow” or “there is no urgency”. But I still find myself thinking I must do it now. A lifetime of structure – I need to rewire my brain.
I am off to Germany and Poland in a few days and people keep saying to me “have fun”. Although I think this trip will be interesting, spiritually fulfilling, educational and emotional, I am not sure it will be exactly fun. It is a trip to visit the places of the holocaust, that horrific time that many people choose to deny or forget just as we forget or ignore the many many genocides that have taken place in our time. There are so many, Kosovo, Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Nanking, the Ukraine under Stalin, Armenia all in the last 100 years and many in my lifetime.
I am honored to be able to say Kaddish at the places my people died. I am filled with gratitude to be able to carry the memory of my Grandmother who, as a child, fled Russia with her mother and seven siblings to come to America. And I am proud to know that in a family of mixed and little faith, I carry the faith of my ancestors and represent them at a time critical in the survival of Judaism in America.
I am proud that I recently took a group of young Jewish students on an overnight trip the central purpose of which was to visit a small but powerful holocaust museum about three hours from our home Temple. We had fun too, but the impact it made on some of those young people was stunning.
So, in my unstructured life, I sat down at my computer to write, told Alexa to play some bebop and this is what I wrote.
This week we begin the final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy or Devarim which means words in Hebrew. We are standing at the Jordan, waiting to cross over and enter the promised land. Moses will never make that crossing, and he chooses to prepare the people by recounting the stories of the trials and hardships that brought them to this moment. We are called the people of the book, we should be called the people of the story; the people of words. We recount our history at every chance, for good reasons. We say of the Holocaust’s racism, bigotry and murder “never again”. How to avoid it if it fades from memory? How will our children remember our history if we don’t retell it?
It is all about communication, though, isn’t it? And we strive for the right words to contain our feelings, to express our desires, to describe our history. And this week a Jewish girl named Aly Raisman did her brilliant Olympic floor routine to Hava Negila on the 40th anniversary of the slaughter of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Her own re-telling, her own “never forget”.
In our daily lives we use words carelessly, we toss them around with little thought. But when we have strong feelings, we struggle to find the right words, words that are adequate. And nowhere do words seem so careless as in our current presidential politics. Things are being said that would have previously been unthinkable, and should be still. The words reek of that racism and bigotry and give rise, as historically, to violence.
Moses chooses his moment to recount, to use words to prepare the people, for building, for memory, for empowering them, for providing rules/structure. Shouldn’t we take this moment to disavow the childhood admonition about sticks and stones? To remember that words can hurt us, can be destructive? We should take Moses’ example and use our words, and our recounting, to empower each other. In our national politic we should use our words to disavow ignorance and hate, deception and lies. In our personal lives we should use our words to strengthen and honor each other. We need all our strength as we stand ever on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to enter the promised land hand in hand, a people of words.